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English is the language of international business. But many people who use the language — both native and non-native speakers — are not very effective communicators. In this book, we provide ten tips for each of ten key business communication skills, including listening, speaking, telephoning, taking part in meetings and building your business network.
Chapter 1 - Listening
The ability to listen well is an effective way of being persuasive, not least because it gets others to listen to us. We provide ten tips to help you to become a better listener.
Chapter 2 - Speaking
If you are unable to express yourself in the right way, you will not communicate your message optimally. We provide ten ideas to help you to get your messages across with impact.
Chapter 3 - Writing
Writing is the forgotten skill of business communication. Effective writing is central to doing business well. We provide ten key ideas to help you to improve your writing at work.
Chapter 4 - Telephoning
Making phone calls in a foreign language can be very stressful. We provide key tips on how to prepare and carry out phone calls effectively at work.
Chapter 5 - Meetings
The ability to hold efficient meetings is a key skill for doing business well. We provide ten tips to help you to take part in meetings — effectively and confidently.
Chapter 6 - Contacts
Personal relationships are essential for business success. We provide ten tips for using casual conversations to improve your network of contacts at work.
Chapter 7 - Negotiating
We spend much of our lives negotiating — both at home and at work. We provide ten tips on how to become a more successful negotiator in the workplace.
Chapter 8 - Teamwork
Working in teams is a key part of business life, and there are extra challenges involved when working in international teams. We present ten ideas for improving your teamwork.
Chapter 9 - Presentations
Having a good story to tell can help to make your presentations more memorable. We provide ten tips to help you develop your identity as a storyteller.
Chapter 10 - Solving problems
The ability to find the right solutions to problems, both operational and strategic, is a core competence. We present ten ideas for improving your problem-solving skills.
About this e-book
English is the language of international business. But many people who use the language — both native and non-native speakers — are not very effective communicators. This e-book, based on a series of articles published in Business Spotlight magazine, provides key tips for ten important business communication skills, including listening, speaking, telephoning, taking part in meetings and building your business network.
How to use this e-book
The individual chapters of this e-book are independent of each other and can be read in any order. Difficult words are underlined in the texts. Tap on these words to see English pronunciation and a translation into German.
BUSINESS SPOTLIGHT is a bi-monthly business communication magazine aimed at people who need to use English at work. Published by Spotlight Verlag in Munich, it combines articles on current business events with tips for effective language learning, business communication skills and intercultural skills. To learn more, go to http://aktion.spotlight-verlag.de/bsl-ebook/.
BOB DIGNEN is a director of the training organization York Associates (www.york-associates.co.uk) in York, England and author of many business English books. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
IAN McMASTER is editor-in-chief of Business Spotlight Contact: email@example.com
© 2016 Spotlight Verlag
Many people who use English at work, whether as a first or second language, want to be better speakers. They want to be more convincing when they talk and to influence others more effectively.
There is nothing wrong with this desire. But curiously, few people think about how they can become better listeners. In many ways, our priorities are wrong here. The ability to listen well is often a far more effective way of being persuasive, not least because it gets others to listen to us.
In this chapter, we provide ten tips to help you to become a better listener.
Do you even recognize the need to improve your listening skills? You may think that you hear what people say and that their messages are mostly clear. But we should challenge these assumptions:
■ How many of us really understand the complexity of other people? We can work and live with others for years and never fully understand them.
■ Working internationally means listening to people expressing themselves in a foreign language — foreign to us and/or to them. People sometimes use words and expressions that they do not intend to use. And we, in turn, may not always understand correctly the words we hear. As a result, what we hear is not necessarily what people want to say.
■ Words (and behaviours) do not necessarily have the same meaning in different cultures. Indirect disagreement (“I’m not really sure about that”) could be politeness or evasion. “That’s interesting” may be a sign of genuineengagement, polite indifference or even disagreement.
■ We all listen with filters, bias, defence mechanisms and emotional influences, which means that we may be ready to find fault or weakness in what others say.
In the following tips, we look at positive approaches to listening that might improve our chances of doing it well.
Listening is much more than hearing. It requires a lot of concentration and a commitment to understand meaning. We have to engage with messages that may seem confusing, irrelevant or simply wrong. The key to doing this is to stay active and create an open conversation that is interesting for both people. Allow others to connect to their own messages and help them to express important ideas. At the same time, keep yourself interested in the conversation. For example:
How did you manage to do that?
This question gets the other person to talk about their competence.
It must have been a great experience.
You can engage with the message by making positive statements.
Can I just come back to what you said about …?
You can show interest by referring to an earlier part of the conversation.
So does that mean that I can …?
Questions can help you understand how the message applies to you.
If you ask people why we should listen to others, the first answer is usually “to get information”. This attitude is understandable, but it reflects a transactional approach to human relations and business, in which people matter to the extent that they help us. But as listeners, we also need to build relationships. The easiest way to do this is to find things that we have in common. Most people like it when others agree with them or at least have similar views and experiences. For example:
Yes, I agree. It was a good meeting.
I’ve been to Moscow a few times, too. It’s a great city, isn’t it?
I’ve also worked with Sally. We
got on very well
Let’s face it: some people are simply difficult to listen to. They either spend all their time telling you how great they are or they demand sympathy by talking about their constant problems. They may give us too much information or confuse us with too little explanation.
One useful technique with such people is to “listen to learn”. Everyone can teach us something: either tangible facts and skills or insights into human behaviour. Every conversation is therefore an opportunity to understand another person. For example, you may experience (and express) surprise at a different perspective or become curious about the reasons for someone’s behaviour:
I hadn’t thought of it that way.
Why did you decide to do it that way? I wouldn’t have thought of that.
Listeners who want to learn avoid contradicting others by saying things such as, “Yes, but …”. Instead, they clearly show that they are interested and curious.
We often think we understand what people are saying, but how can we be sure? For example, what do words like “difficult”, “expensive” or “urgent” really mean? They are relative, of course. But almost all words can be ambiguous. Do all of us mean the same thing when we use words like “leadership”, “quality” or “agreement”? It may feel strange to ask what seem to be dumb questions. But the benefits are that we are likely to get better information and to improve our business relationships by giving others the feeling that they are being listened to. So don’t be afraid to clarify regularly. You can use phrases such as:
Do you mean that …?
What do you mean by … exactly?
When you say quality is important, what do you mean exactly by quality?
Why do you say that?
Everyone needs to feel some form of appreciation and recognition. But second-language users often fail to show enough explicit appreciation or give positive feedback when they are listening. Maybe the difficulty of decoding words, grammar and meaning means that many people ignore the relationship aspect of communication. If you do this, the danger is that you may seem to be very quiet and mostly interested in expressing your own opinions. Taking time to signal appreciation and recognition can create a strong emotional connection between the speaker and the listener:
Oh, that’s interesting.
I see. That sounds fascinating.
That’s an important idea.
I can see that you have a lot of experience with …
Listening isn’t simply about the words that you hear. It’s also about what you can see. Good listeners check regularly for clues about how others are feeling.
Watch the speaker to check for eye contact, facial expressions and energy levels. Does the speaker seem happy with you as a listener? Have you ever asked yourself that question?
When communicating in a foreign culture and/or with people whom we are meeting for the first time, our ability to assess their mood is often more limited. What we see and feel may not be what is really happening. For example, a frown may signal either concentrated engagement or irritation. A smile may be a sign of rapport or of nervous embarrassment. Try to discover what the speaker means by particular non-verbal signals. If it is appropriate in the context, you can also check whether your interpretations are correct:
You seem to me to be a little worried/
/concerned by that.
Are you happy with that?
Is everything OK?
Just as you observe others, they will be watching you as a listener. From time to time, check how you are standing or sitting. What are your hands doing? Are you maintaining eye contact appropriately? Are you smiling or nodding? We shouldn’t become paranoid about our behaviour as listeners and lose authenticity. But we should remember that listening is hard work and that our body language often betrays irritation, confusion or boredom far more clearly than we imagine. As a rule of thumb, if you are thinking it, your body language is probably showing it.
If you don’t understand what the other person or people are saying, here are a number of useful phrases that you can use:
■I’m sorry, I didn’t understand/get/catch that.
■I’m sorry, could you say that again, please?
■I’m sorry, could you repeat that, please?
■I’m sorry, could you speak a bit more slowly, please?
■Did I understand correctly? You’re saying that …
A funny thing happens when people start talking to us. Their words and stories spontaneously kick off a wonderful world of imagination and experience in our own heads. Someone mentions a trip to Dubai, and suddenly, we are thinking about our last holiday there. We remember the warmth of the sun and the sound of the beach, and we start to recall that delicious dinner by the … And of course, by this time, we have stopped listening. Although it is important to exchange shared experiences in order to build rapport, we should first stay focused on the world of others and ask questions that help them to talk about their world, their lives and their experiences:
What were you doing in Dubai?
How did you find it?
What did you learn about the culture?
When are you going back?
Many conversations are “collective monologues”, with people standing in front of each other, projecting their own worlds and not listening or connecting. One simple technique to create a true dialogue when it is your turn to speak, is to talk about something that you were just told. You can signal this with phrases such as:
picking up on
what you said earlier, I also think that …
To add to what you mentioned about exporting to China, …
I had a similar experience when I was in Russia.
I found Malta quite similar to the way you describe it …
It is not only essential that we listen more effectively, but also that others feel we are listening well. Ask for feedback on your listening skills from three key people in or outside your organization. Start with a simple question: “Do you think that I am a good listener?” You may find it difficult to listen to the replies. But that in itself can be an important part of the answer — and give you your first chance to put into practice what you have learned from this chapter.
Task 1: Make a note of situations in which you’ve misunderstood colleagues. What did you misunderstand? Was it information or an emotion (for example, did you feel criticized even though that wasn’t intended)?
Task 2: During lunch, ask questions that enable other people to talk about things that they are good at or interested in.
Task 3: The next time you meet a new person, try to discover three things that you have in common during the first five minutes. This could be something you agree about or something you both like or have experienced.
Task 4: In your next meeting, ask questions so that the other person can tell you something interesting that you can learn from, either for your personal life or for work.
Task 5: In your next discussion, listen carefully to the adjectives and adverbs that people use in their messages, for example, “It’s an important topic” or “We need to do this quickly”. Clarify these words with questions (“What do you mean by ‘important’/‘quickly’?”) and encourage others to give you more information.
Task 6: In meetings, explicitly signal your appreciation of what other people are saying, for example, by replying, “Yes, that point is important because …”.
Task 7: Test your ability to empathize and read non-verbal cues by checking from time to time with comments such as, “You seem to be happy/irritated/concerned/unsure about this”.